The Willow Tree in the Cambridgeshire village of Bourn has a novel way of letting people enjoy a meal out in splendid isolation. Dean Usher paid a visit.
The number of creative ways that businesses around Britain have continued to operate amid the coronavirus chaos of 2020 has been a revelation. We’ve witnessed top-end brands such as Barbour turning their hands to making PPE for the NHS, sleepy village shops becoming bustling hubs for local produce, and great institutions running events online in a manner which few would have foreseen this time last year.
Some of the most intriguing tales come from the restaurants and pubs, places which were among the worst hit during the months of lockdown. Everything from local pubs dropping off burgers to Michelin-starred chefs preparing fine banquets for delivery has been witnessed.
For those who still want to go out, however, things have been hit and miss. While some places have been superb at spacing diners to keep people safe, many others have continued to cram people in — which might be fine for those who are blasé about Covid-19, but will leave others worried.
One place in Cambridgeshire, The Willow Tree in Bourn, has come upon a superb solution for those wanting to go out in safety: dining domes.
The domes — imagine half a giant hamster ball — were recently installed by owner Shaina Galvin as a result of the need for more outdoor seating to fit diners in. But it’s done more than that: the domes have turned going out for dinner into a uniquely private, fun and personalised experience at a charming and quirky venue. It’s also ideal for those wary of the virus: you can ask to have your food and drink placed on a table outside your dome, if you’d feel more comfortable that way.
On arrival we were escorted past a willow tree covered in fairy lights to the end of the garden, where the three dining dome bubbles awaited us. With recent volatile weather conditions we were unsure what to expect, but they’d survived the late August monsoon intact; and if it had been the other extreme, they’re even kitted out with an air-con unit in each dome.
A beautiful place to eat doesn’t mean much, of course, if the food isn’t up to scratch. Thankfully, head chef Shaun Last has put together a varied menu that focuses on simple yet beautiful flavours using high quality produce from local suppliers including Kale & Damson in Cambridge and Burton’s butchers in Saffron Walden. There were local drinks too — Ripchord Pale Ale from nearby BrewBoard — though some of our party were happier with espresso martins and prosecco.
Of our starters, a white crab salad with herbs, radishes, grapefruit and dandelion received top marks, while mains included wood-fired monkfish flavoured with saffron and dished up with a summer stew, as well as a pan-fried chicken thigh with marinated courgettes, new potatoes and salsa verde; all were fresh, seasonal and delicious. The desserts were stunning — a burnt caramel semifreddo and malted chocolate ganache (for which the recipe is below).
As the sun was setting, the domes started to really come alive as they were caught by the early evening light, giving an intimate, cosy and almost magical feel that generated a tangible feeling of excitement from our fellow ‘domers’. The Willow Tree has other outside tables and a terrace, but the dome really did lift a nice evening out into something special.
Shaina and her team are planning to bring in another three domes as the weather turns, with the intention of making a Winter Wonderland in the darker, colder months as Christmas approaches. That sounds like a great excuse to go back.
Dining domes at the Willow Tree, Bourn, Cambridgeshire, are available to book for lunch, afternoon tea or dinner with seatings at 5pm or 8pm; there is a £45 charge. Each can accommodate from two to eight people, though are only bookable for up to six due to Covid-19 restrictions. See www.thewillowtreebourn.com for bookings.
How to make the Willow Tree’s chocolate ganache
- 8og double cream
- 20g Ovaltine
- 40g 70% Chocolate
- Splash of milk
For the white chocolate Shards
- White chocolate
- Chilli powder
- Kirsch soaked cherries
Heat the double cream and the Ovaltine until simmering.
Pour the mixture over the dark chocolate and carefully fold in three stages, mixing between each addition until dark chocolate is completely melted.
Add the splash of milk and blend together with an electric whisk.
Melt the white chocolate gently in a bain marie or in a bowl over (but not touching) hot water
Smooth the white chocolate over parchment and sprinkle with chilli powder a light dusting. Put in the fridge to set, then break into shards.
Place the ganache onto the plate and decorate with the shards and cherries.